The Art of Knowing When to Retreat

Hope Chest is a podcast about a womanhood, parenting, art, and mother’s relationship with her young daughter. Delivered in second-person epistolary form, Hope Chest is the audio lovechild of Stacia L. Brown.

This is the sixth episode. Listen here.

1.

Sometimes you forget who you are. That’s part of it. You are preoccupied with sustenance, with earning enough to eat, enough to squirrel away for the leaner times between long-term contracts. Sometimes there are too few creature comforts. Other times, too many. In the former circumstance you may panic. In the latter, you may become too lax. Artists are rarely achievers of balance. Too many of us thrive at our edges, too many exist at extremes.

It is fine for you to acknowledge that you are an artist, fine for you to assume that because your parents are makers of movies or artfully interwoven ideas, then you must bear those abilities, also. But before you grow up and stake your livelihood on it, I desperately wish you’d reconsider.

We are at Ryder Farm this week, an organic, sustainable estate and artists’ retreat in Putnam County, New York. We are one of six families here, enjoying the respite of what’s called a residency. We are taking up residence in communal homes that have belonged to the same family since the late 1700s. I am writing this to you on a Friday in late July. It’s our fifth day here. I have spent the week trying to reclaim the voice I thought I’d lost, not the writing voice I’ve relied on so heavily to afford me enough freelance work to raise you, but the truer voice that’s wandered off, the one that will rescue me and make me a much better mother to you. You have spent the week conquering your fear of all flying and ambling insects. You’ve found new friends, admired flora and fauna, and dived off an inflatable rowboat into the shallows of Peach Lake. We have both been brave, which is what all artistic life requires.

For the first few days, I wrote in the short bursts that have been rote to me lately. I’d stop as suddenly as I started, then strike through everything I’d gotten down. It takes time to settle into respite — especially if the reality you’re setting aside to embrace it has, of late, left you questioning far too often the fundamental truth of who you are.

All week I have been waiting to hear back about a full-time job, one for which I’ve interviewed thrice but still may not get. Full-time jobs are a bit of a foreign concept for me; it’s something more than one of the many interviewers mentioned while revisiting my resume. I’ve not worked 40-hour-a-week position, nor had medical, vision, dental, or a 401K, in over ten years. I’d scarcely know where to begin if I were afforded them now. But I need them in ways that I hope you will never have occasion to imagine, since I’ve gotten it into my head somehow that my value as a person and a partner and a parent have been greatly diminished without them.

Until recently, I had believed that childhood rhetoric, from all those well-meaning adults in my life whose own wildest dreams had long been tamed: “Baby girl, you can be anything you want to be. If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”

I carried their confidence into college, as I took on tens of thousands in debt at 18. I held onto it as I started my first full-time job at 21, though my grip loosened a lot when I was laid of nine months later on my 22nd birthday. Miraculously, I must’ve still believed it when I was 25 and I applied to one of the priciest colleges in the country — to earn an MFA in creative writing without a single dime in funding, no less.

I had a hard time flourishing for any sustained period of time but I wrote feverishly even when there were setbacks. The recipient of church revival prophecies as a child and forehead-fulls of holy hands “speaking life” over my future, I just believed that I would become a successful writer. No matter how late I bloomed, I was planting myself in the right garden. Debt be damned; I intended to double-down.

But I am nearly 39 now and I am your mother. We are sleeping in a twin bed in a room we share with my mother, in an apartment owned by my grandmother. Few would know it, to look at giggly, gregarious you, but we are barely getting by. Though there have been reasons for this, beyond my stubborn pursuit of some girlish flight of fancy, reasons including the outlandish cost of childcare and my desire to be your primary caregiver, reasons like wanting to see you — especially when you were smaller — for more than one or two waking hours at night, I should’ve acquiesced to a more pragmatic practice of adulthood earlier. I have reached a point, perhaps far too late, where the choices I make must be guided as much by the potential for reasonable and consistent income as by some misguided sense that I am doing society some sort of service, simply by writing things down.

Without money, there is only romanticized poverty for the artist. And with money that is not your own, money that is granted to you or won in a contest or bestowed by some magnanimous patron, there is temporary relief at best. You’d do well to be the captain of your own commerce. No benefactor, be it blood relative or spouse, is guarantee to finance your art forever or even until it becomes reliably profitable.

By necessity and with very few exceptions, Black artists have always been day-job-working artists. They are working in cubicles, under fluorescents, closed in by walls colored in the most unimaginative shades of eggshell. They are in public school classrooms or at nonprofit conference tables. They are bussing tables, caring for others’ babies while their own are in school. They are closely supervised or closely supervising.

I am one of the few who have waited this long to prioritize a biweekly paycheck. I am one of few who’ve taken that risk for this long and not seen it work out for them before the age of 40.

I knew it was time to look for work in some institution’s office, someplace with a rarely-cleaned Keurig and a copier that malfunctions maddeningly often, when I stopped being able to write so feverishly. I’ve woken up every morning of the past 18 months with incrementally less that I’ve wanted to say and even more miniscule confidence that anyone would care to read it.

Another occupational habit of the artist: we are, so often, alone. This is fine when the muses are whispering kindly, five when creative juice is plentiful. This is fine when our personal lives are at relative peace, fine when we are not forced to defend what we do to people who remain unconvinced that it’s worth doing. It is harder when the only voices we hear, when we sit at a blank page, berate us.

I hope that I have hidden it deftly enough from you, but daughter, I have not been well. I don’t always known anymore. I don’t know if I can be who I chose to believe that I was.

2.

When you were born, I thought I understood what becoming your mother was doing to me. Clearly, I was evolving both as a woman and as a writer. There was the surge of postpartum output. I needed to document what I was witnessing — essentially a human I helped create experiencing sentience for the first time outside of my body — And I needed to process what I was feeling — essentially a deconstruction of everything I’d been, a retrofitting meant to accommodate a child.

It was not until you finally became a bit more independent, able to leave my side for half-hours at a time, that at some point, I had stopped writing as a foundational practice of my identity and started writing just to make enough income to support you. The two are easy conflate; there is some overlap. But it’s occurred to me in the last year or so, that I can only write well in order to mother and I can only write well about being a mother, when I am not neglecting the many other areas of life that require evolution and adaptation and growth. Having time to prune the forgotten and to weed the overgrown in relatively new. But there’s symmetry to giving all of your spare time to a child; the longer you raise her, the more of it she returns to you.

3.

I wanted you to think long and hard about being an artist because my greatest hope for you is that you will live out each day, understanding yourself. I also want you to know the relief of being often understood by others. An artist’s existence makes both of those aspirations challenging.

A writer who insists on doing work that accommodates her creative process lives at constant risk of misrepresentation. When she is Black and a woman and an unmarried mother to boot, she has a difficult time convincing anyone — even, on occasion, herself, that she is doing an acceptable thing. I do not want you to shouldering that kind of self-doubt.

But I know full well that if art-making is, in fact, in your blood, you will rush toward it regardless of warning. You will create even when the confines of capitalism attempt to shame you for it. You will find time, before and after any day job — and if you take away nothing else from all this, please do not estimate the value of a day job.

Of course, with you, I may not need to worry over any of this at all. For I am certain you will remember this week for years to come. This is why it was so important for me to bring you along. When you are old enough, I suspect one thing will be clearer: what your mother could not afford with money, she could access with talent. At no point in this under-employed summer have I been in a position to pay for a six-night stay on an ancestral homestead in New York. But we are here all the same because I happen to know which words sound most beautiful when paired. I know how to arrange them evocatively. At my best, I can sense precisely where they must be aimed to achieve the height of their power.

Even while my latest existential crisis renders that talent temporarily unrecognizable, you are dashing down a wooded path without worry, figuring out for the very first time just how fast your legs can carry you when there’s mud, gravel and caterpillars to consider. You are learning how your humor can put peers at ease and realizing the quintessence of a midday quiet hour when you have played your absolute hardest all morning. Because of this you may never have cause to question the confidence that can be gained and restored in the care and the company of artists.